While the Ilini come into the game off of a loss to Kansas, a few matchups could prove difficult for the James Franklin‘s team. To remain unbeaten leaving Champaign, here are three key matchups Penn State must win.
Penn State Football vs. Illinois Key Matchups
1. Penn State interior offensive line vs. Illinois defensive tackles
Illinois’ defense is led by defensive tackle Jer’Zhan Newton, one of the Big Ten conference’s 10 preseason honorees, a preseason All-American by numerous media outlets, and College Football Network’s preseason Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year.
In two games this season, Newton has recorded eight tackles and two sacks. During the 2022 campaign, Newton recorded 62 tackles, 14 tackles for a loss, and 5.5 sacks, earning second team All-American honors from AP, CBS, PFF, and Walter Camp.
Alongside Newton, Illinois returns Keith Randolph Jr. Randolph finished 2022 with 53 tackles, 13 tackles for a loss, and 4.5 sacks, earning All-Big Ten third team honors from both the coaches and the media.
For 2023, Randolph Jr. also earned preseason All-America third and fourth team honors from Athlon and Phil Steele, respectively.
The matchup with Newton and Randolph Jr. could cause trouble for Penn State’s guards and center Hunter Nourzad, who has been dealing with “bumps and bruises” this season.
On a positive note for Penn State Football, all members of the Lions’ starting offensive line were able to limit snaps against Delaware and should have fresh legs going into this weekend’s matchup.
2. Penn State linebackers vs. Luke Altmyer
After transferring from Ole Miss in the spring, quarterback Luke Altmyer earned the starting job for Illinois this season.
In the Ilini’s first two games of the season, Altmyer has led the Ilini in both passing and rushing, operating as a true dual threat in the backfield.
As Penn State Football saw against West Virginia, a mobile quarterback can pose challenges for the defense, especially if the defensive line over pursues into the backfield.
In Week 1, Garrett Greene rushed for 71 yards on 15 carries, with a long rush of 15 yards.
Penn State’s linebackers must limit any damage that Altmyer can cause if Penn State’s defensive line is not able to keep Altmyer contained in the pocket.
With Penn State getting early season practice against a dual threat quarterback, the Nittany Lions should know the issues to focus on this week before facing Altmyer.
Penn State cornerbacks vs. Isaiah Williams
In 2022, Illinois lived and died by their rushing attack, as Chase Brown rushed for over 1600 yards and 10 touchdowns on his way to a second-team All-American selection by numerous media outlets and his selection in the fifth round of the 2023 NFL draft.
This season, Illinois’ rushing attack has been more limited outside of rushing by Altmyer.
In the passing game, Illinois focuses on receiver Isaiah Williams, a preseason All-Big Ten first team selection by multiple media outlets who led the Ilini in receiving in 2022 with 82 catches for 715 yards and five touchdowns. In 2023, the junior wide receiver accounts for over twice as many receiving yards as any other player on Illinois roster with 11 catches for 150 yards in two games.
If Penn State’s cornerbacks can shut down Williams, Illinois may struggle passing the ball Saturday.
While Penn State enters Saturday’s game as 14.5 point favorites, the first road game of the year could make the game more difficult than it seems on paper.
First year stater Drew Allar has been excellent this season, but Illinois pass rush could make his day more difficult.
While Illinois’ offense is not what it was in 2022, there are still matchups that could create headaches for Penn State Saturday. If Penn State can dominate these three key matchups, then Penn State should come away with a victory over the Ilini to move to 3-0 on the season before returning home for their annual “Whiteout” game against Iowa.